White House Sidewalk Regulation

The next turn of the regulatory screw drove vigils off the White House sidewalk. "(In) a memorandum, dated 18 January 1983, from then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt to an aide, Moody Tidwell, Watt requested 'a briefing on the regulations that allow demonstrations and protesters in Lafayette Park and in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. My intention is to prohibit such activities and require that they take place on the Ellipse.' In March 1983 Watt received a briefing from the principal drafter of the new regulations and told him to 'keep up the good work'." [1]

As it happens "the principal drafter" of the new regulations was the same Richard Robbins, and his new regulation was intended to address the same signs of "two individuals who have been in the park since 1981" (William Thomas and Concepcion Picciotto). [2] Just two days after Mr. Watt told Mr. Robbins to "keep up the good work" -- but several months before his second regulation criminalized the vigil's signs -- Mr. Robbins appeared on the White House sidewalk in the company of U.S. Park Police, Secret Service, and D.C. Metropolitan Police officers. This concerted inter-agency police taskforce proceeded to remove the vigil's still constitutionally- protected signs from the White House sidewalk. The action resulted in the arrest and criminal prosecution of Thomas, who says the government's record of the incident provides the discerning reader with a clue as to the prevailing state of democracy and the police state. [3]

The government asserted "security" and "aesthetic" concerns as justification for removing signs from the White House sidewalk. The trial court found the "security" concerns to be "incredible," "grossly exaggerated," and "clearly unreasonable." [4] The vigilers asserted that the First Amendment was a line drawn to protect signs on the White House sidewalk, and if the line were erased there it could be erased anywhere. But the higher court was not impressed with facts.

In 1984, the Court of Appeals agreed that Lafayette Park was a "unique forum for public expression," and that people had a "right" to display large signs in the park, but, based on the precedent set by Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, upheld Mr. Robbins' regulation imposing limits on demonstrators and the size and placement of signs on the White House sidewalk.

The court rationalized those "rights" would be insured even if the signs were moved across the street to Lafayette Park. [5] The vigil's signs were forcibly moved across the street to the Park.

Over the years hundreds of people have been arrested under the regulation for harmlessly standing, sitting, and praying on the White House sidewalk with, and without, signs.

[1] Equal Rights Amendment v. Clark, 746 F.2d 1518, 1527 (1984).]

[2] 48 Federal Register 28058, June 17, (1983).]

[3] Thomas v. United States, 557 A.2d l296, 1298 (D. C. l989).]

[4] Equal Rights Amendment v. Clark, 746 F.2d 1518, 1525. (1984).]

[5] Equal Rights Amendment v. Clark, 746 F.2d 1518, 1541. (1984).]